Sunday, January 02, 2011

Northrop Frye on Romance

Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye (1912-1991) remains a preeminent voice in literary criticism and has found – or, is finding – a renewed interest because of the publication of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Eric Selinger has previously posted on Frye here at Teach Me Tonight. In his post, Eric writes: “Here’s the most recent version [of a handful of passages from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism] – I hope it’s useful to someone out there! If anything here strikes a chord, I’d love to hear about it.”

In Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, readers find Frye defining an entire system of literature one that is understood in terms of modes, genres, symbols, and myths. In his later book, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, readers encounter Frye trying to understand one specific genre: romance. Though Frye is concerned with the history of romance from its late classical origins through to its contemporary manifestations, his work continues to provide, to my mind, some of the most potent defences of the romance. He writes:

Popular literature has been the object of a constant bombardment of social anxieties for over two thousand years, and nearly the whole of the established critical tradition has stood out against it. The greater part of the reading and listening public has ignored the critics and censors for exactly the same length of time. This is an issue which we shall have a look into, because the bulk of popular literature consists of what I have been calling sentimental romance. (23, CW XVIII:19)

For Frye, the sentimental romance is “a more extended and literary development of formulas of naïve romance” (3, CW XVIII:5) – the naïve romance being “the kind of story that I found in collections of folk tales and märchen, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales” (3, CW XVIII:5). Thus, for Frye, there is – it would seem – a distinction to be found between the fairy tale and the romance, despite the fact that “romance is the structural core of all fiction” (15, CW XVIII:14).

But throughout the opening chapter of The Secular Scripture, readers find various defences of the romance:

Any serious discussion of romance has to take into account its curiously proletarian status as a form generally disapproved of, in most ages, by the guardians of taste and learning, except when they use it for their own purposes. The close connection of the romantic and the popular runs all through literature. The formulas of New Comedy and Greek romance were demotic and popular formulas, like their counterparts now, treated with condescension by the highbrows, one form of condescension being the writing of such tales themselves, as academic write detective stories. (23, CW XVIII:19-20)

Frye, though talking about romance in general – thus including the detective story, mystery novel, science fiction – offers some remarkable thoughts with regard to the popular romance novel of the amorous tradition:

The central element of romance is a love story, and the exciting adventures are normally foreplay leading up to sexual union. Hence romance appears to be designed mainly to encourage irregular or excessive sexual activity. This may be masturbation, which is the usual model in the minds of those who speak with contempt of ‘escape’ reading, or it may be a form of voyeurism. Most denunciations of popular romance on such grounds, we notice, assume that the pornographic and the erotic are the same thing: this overlooks the important principle that it is the function of pornography to stun and numb the reader, and the function of erotic writing to wake him up. (24, CW XVIII:20)

Clearly there is much to be said about such a paragraph and perhaps readers of Teach Me Tonight can begin to consider Frye’s observations. What is clear is that in 1976, as Frye gave this series of lectures, the same criticisms of popular romance existed that continue to dominate over studies of romance. To these ends, Frye remains an important critic of the popular romance novel, and perhaps, no where is this more clear than in Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel which often engages with Frye’s theories of romance.

Frye’s goal in The Secular Scripture: “I am trying to suggest a literary perspective on [romance] which may help to bring it into the area of literary criticism instead of confining it to linguistics or to the less fashionable suburbs of sociology” (26, CW XVIII:21).

He concludes his first lecture from The Secular Scripture observing that,

Literature is the human compulsion to create in the face of chaos. Romance, I think, is not only central to literature as a whole, but the area where we can see most clearly that the maze without a plan and the maze not without a plan are two aspects of the same thing. (31, CW XVIII:25)
Having been introduced to romance through Frye, it seems to me that he remains an influential voice (especially if we hope to develop a greater acceptance of popular romance in the academy).


  1. Frye’s goal in The Secular Scripture: “I am trying to suggest a literary perspective on [romance] which may help to bring it into the area of literary criticism instead of confining it to linguistics or to the less fashionable suburbs of sociology” (26, CW XVIII:21).

    In his "Polemical Introduction" to the Anatomy of Criticism Frye set his "literary perspective" up against "what belongs only to the history of taste, and therefore follows the vacillations of fashionable prejudice" (9). I wonder if he chose romance as the subject of The Secular Scripture partly because the "history of taste" had been so consistently prejudiced against it and partly because he felt that if that prejudice remained unchallenged, "the bulk of popular literature" would remain outside the domain of the literary critic.

    In other words, saving the romance from prejudice may be a good in itself, but I suspect Frye also thought it necessary for the good of literary criticism.

  2. The idea in Frye that I am most engaged with at the moment is this: " all histories of fiction the realists form the skeleton; the romancers lack their moral dignity, and are just entertainers" (_Collected Works Vol. 15: Northrop Frye's Notebooks on Romance_, 191). Putting the romancers--the American ones, in my case--in the center of the history of fiction, rather than in the footnotes, is my current project.

    A huge hat tip to Jonathan who suggested that I read Frye's notebooks.

  3. Frye had a long term interest in romance, so I'm not sure what to say in response, Laura. Michael Dolzani in his introduction to _Northrop Frye's Notebooks on Romance_ writes: "In his earlier writings, Frye thinks of romance almost entirely as a by-product of Romanticism, and of Romanticism as the last and most decadent phase of the Spenglerian decline of the west" (CW XV:xxiii). Dolzani explains that there is a second period in Frye's theorisations: "In the period of _Anatomy_, Frye acknowledges that romance is far older than Romanticism; indeed, if folktale is its first manifestation, it is conterminous with myth itself. Romance thus becomes, in this period, a subsidiary double of myth" (CW XV:xxiv). Then, of course, another period: "It is only in the final phase that romance becomes for Frye a full Blakean contrary to myth. He has come to realize that his heritage from Blake is in fact double, and that this is a good thing, because 'Without Contraries Is no Progression'" (CW XV:xxiv).

    Dolzani's introduction is wonderful because it is quite elaborate and very aware of Frye's history with romance.

    Joe Adamson and Jean Wilson in their introduction to _The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976-1991_ write: "In Notes 56a, one of hte _Secular Scripture_ notebooks, [Frye] remarks that after search for some time for a 'unified theme,' he now has 'the main structure of a book [he has] been ambitious to write for at least twenty year, without understanding what it was, except in bits and pieces' [CW XV:199-200]. His hope is to 'make it the subject of [the lectures] at Harvard. After all, it's fundamentally an expansion of the paper I did for the Harvard myth conference.' The latter paper, 'Myth, Fiction, and Displacement', first published in 1961, outlines and develops a 'central principle about 'myth criticism': that myth is a structural element in literature because literature as a whole is a 'displaced' mythology'" (CW XVIII:xxiv).

    This certainly does not answer why Frye wrote specifically about romance, but rather shows that it was a long-term concern for Frye.

  4. Thanks, Jonathan. I suspect what I was doing was thinking through why I think the study of romance is important, and picking out bits of Frye which resonated with me as I did that.

  5. Thanks, Laura and Pam! I will try and write other posts on Frye here -- likely involving the Notebooks as well.

  6. I saw this over at today and was struck by the way Frye talks about popular literature. Additionally, I think this is something that Pam spoke about in her keynote address at the IASPR conference:

    The distinction between popular culture and highbrow culture assumes that there are two different kinds of people, and I think that’s extremely dubious. I don’t see the virginal purity of highbrow literature trying to keep itself unsullied from the pollutions of popular culture. Umberto Eco wasn’t any less a semiotics scholar for writing a bestselling romance [The Name of the Rose]. There isn’t a qualitative distinction. It just doesn’t exist. And I think that the tendency on the part of the mass media as a whole is to abolish this distinction. (CW 24, 766)

  7. Two thoughts, Jonathan!

    In my courses on popular romance (I'm about to teach my 23rd, or something like that), several ideas from Frye prove extremely useful, year after year, in framing the genre.

    The first come from his contrast between Romance and realism in the Anatomy of Criticism: that in Romance “the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended" (AC 33), and that in Romance, characterization tends to be structural, rather than psychological. This really helps keep students from objecting too loudly or too long that the novels we're reading "aren't realistic," or that characters aren't behaving (or aren't described) in the three-dimensional way they've been taught to prize.

    The second, even more crucial, is his notion of "design." In the texts my students have previously studied, the symmetries and other marks of authorial design have mostly been subtle or hidden out of sight; in popular romance novels, they tend to be much more visible. The passage I like to give them is this:

    "This affinity between the mythical and the abstractly literary illuminates many aspects of fiction, especially the more popular fiction which is realistic enough to be plausible in its incidents and yet romantic enough to be a ‘good story,’ which means a clearly designed one. The introduction of an omen or portent, or the device of making a whole story the fulfillment of a prophecy given at the beginning, is an example. Such a device suggests, in its existential projection, a conception of ineluctable fate or hidden omnipotent will. Actually, it is a piece of pure literary design, giving the beginning some symmetrical relationship with the end, and the only ineluctable will involved is that of the author" (AC 139).

    I don't know The Secular Scripture or the Notebooks well yet, but it looks like they'll be of use.

    Is it the case, though, that in Canada, Frye is still a foundational critic? My sense here in the US (correct me if I'm wrong, anyone) is that he's seen as quite old-fashioned, even a bit declasse. Is he due for an American revival?

  8. I think there is a sort of reluctant attitude towards Frye in Canada. Linda Hutcheon in an introduction to _The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination_ writes: "Canadian poet and critic Eli Mandel once claimed that the Canadian criticism of Northrop Frye - that world-renowned and most formidable theorist of literature - was cogent and powerful but also widely misunderstood" (vii). Though Hutcheon through Mandel is talking specifically about his Canadian literary criticism, it seems that the same holds true for much of Frye's criticism. I think that there is a general feeling that Frye's work was "good in its time" but, to borrow an oft-cited Frye-ism, perhaps now is time for "new directions from old." And, in many regards, I think that is precisely what many in popular romance studies (like you) are doing: drawing on Frye's old directions and giving them a new life.

  9. Interesting--and I wonder whether the publication of the Notebooks provides the opportunity for some sort of "Neo-Frygian" critical turn.

    Practically speaking, though, I wonder what the reception outside our charmed circle of popular romance scholars would be to a paper drawing primarily on Frye as its critical resource. What would a peer-reviewer at the Journal of Popular Culture or Mosaic say, for example? (Or even at JPRS, perhaps.) Are there critics who've built on Frye that you found useful in the dissertation?

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